[BGU, Geography] Prof. Oren Yiftachel
Oren Yiftachel (BGU) is a long- time activist for the Negev Bedouins; he was one of the architects of the effort to enroll the them in the UN Register for indigenous people. The anti-Israel bias of the Register is quite evident, as the same tribal groups in the region, including Syria are not recognized as such.
Yiftachel has also served as an expert for the el-Okbi family in its litigation with the state. He and the el-Okbi tribe have worked with Professor John Sheehan, Director of the Australian- based Asia-Pacific Center for Complex Real Estate Property Rights. Sheehan holds very expansive views of the rights of indigenous people and is best known for his controversial project to include the City of Sidney in the restitution model that would place ownership in the hands of the Aboriginals.
Sheehan claims that there are parallels between the Aboriginals and the Bedouins, specifically referring to the so-called Mabo case. In 1992 the Australian Supreme Court ruled that natives have a preexisting law- system that included land possession, thus rejecting the "terra nullius" doctrine whereby Australia was considered an empty land before the arrival of the settlers.
Without referring to the Mabo case, Israeli courts have pointed out that the legal situation of the Bedouins in the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate was very different, as it provided a mechanism for registering their property. Furthermore, Ruth Kark, a geographer from the Hebrew University, researched the movements of the nomadic Bedouins and concluded that some of their settlements were of relatively recent vintages. Unlike the Aboriginals who arrived in Australia forty thousand years ago, at least some of the nomadic Bedouins quite possibly roamed a wider swath of the region that included the Negev.
Following a recent court ruling that rejected the el-Okbi claim, Yiftachel has engaged in a flurry of writing, but contingently ignored some important facts. As IAM reported, the presiding judge took the unprecedented step of rebuking Yiftachel for his sloppy preparation, failure to master facts and evasive testimony. Instead, he writes "that the judge chose to render a harsh, confrontational ruling," and stuck to the earlier precedents.
Whether the Bedouins should be included in the same legal category as the Aboriginals, as Sheehan and Yiftachel seem to think, is in the hands of the Supreme Court. It can only be hoped that the materials and arguments presented to the Supreme Court will not include the type of rhetorical hype that Yiftachel is best known for. For someone who made a career of comparing Israel to the apartheid -era South Africa, a "finding" that is welcome by the network of neo-Marxist, critical journals that embraced him and other critical scholars, the court's preference for strict facts must be upsetting.
Background - by Professor Oren Yiftachel, Department of Geography, Ben – Gurion University, Be'er Sheba
The importance of making an appeal in the El–Okbi Family land ownership case
Since its foundation, the State of Israel refuses to recognize Bedouin ownership over ancestral lands in the Negev. Most of the Bedouins did not register their lands in 1921, as was required by one of the British laws; but neither did most other residents of Mandatory Palestine, including Jewish ones, carry out such registration. Sixty years later, the State of Israel made cynical use of this lack of registration to order to register most Bedouin lands as "State Lands", thus making the Bedouins into "invaders" or "squatters" on their own ancestral land.
Some of the Bedouins have tried to challenge the system of dispossession. Notable among them is Nuri el-Okbi, long-time dedicated human rights activist. In recent years, Nuri and his brothers are conducting a series of law suits against the state, demanding restoration of the lands taken from them in the fifties.
A few weeks ago, a ruling rejecting the claims of the el-Okbis was made in an important case – one in which for the first time a professional support team was involved, including Att. Michael Sfard, geographer Oren Yiftachel and other experts. The proceeding lasted three years, during which dozens of witnesses testified and hundreds of documents and expert reports submitted, attesting to the el-Okbis' ownership of the land. The judge, however, chose to render a harsh, confrontational ruling, sticking to earlier precedents and concluding that any land which had not been registered in 1921 is ipso facto the property of the state. The court relied mainly on legal precedents, hardly referring to the evidence presented. Therefore, it is very important to lodge an appeal to the Supreme Court - the only body which is empowered to overturn precedents and strike out in a new direction. At such a hearing, the judges would not be able to ignore the rich materials submitted by the el-Okbi Tribe, and the new legal arguments presented. In addition, such an appeal would strengthen the struggle of tens of thousands of Bedouins, who at this very moment are struggling against government plans to evict them to existing townships. The government's plan is based on the wrong assumption that Bedouins have no land ownership rights, and a Supreme Court appeal is now the only way to stop these draconian plans. Therefore, it is highly important to lodge an appeal on the el-Okbi Land Case, and make it clear that the Bedouin community is determined to struggle for their basic human rights - specifically to change a legal ruling which causes severe and completely undeserved damage to a large section of Israel's citizen body.